Any dog guardian who truly understands their canine companion knows that these animals are the most selfless and amazing creatures. Dogs routinely put their person’s wishes above their own needs. It’s this desire to please that is best demonstrated in the sport of agility where dogs are guided through a dog obstacle course such as jumps and weave poles in a particular order within an allotted timeframe.
Dogs inherently want to please and agility training allows them to connect with their handlers at deeper level. Once a well-trained dog completes an obstacle, his/her head will turn to see where her owner is directing them next. Of course, there are many ways to bond with your dog, but the depth of communication between dog and handler in this team sport is remarkable.
The birth of dog agility training is credited to an entertainment stunt that occurred in Birmingham, England at the Crufts dog show in 1978 during a break between the confirmation and obedience competitions. Spectators were intrigued by the complexity, speed and skills demonstrated by the dogs and agility became an event. The sport has since expanded, resulting in multiple venues where dog and handler can compete. Each organization offering competitive events has a set of specific rules: American Kennel Club (AKC), North American Dog Agility Council (NAADAC), United States Dog Agility Association (USDAA) and Canine Performance Evaluations (CPE) are a few of the US-sanctioned events. What they all have in common are requirements to achieve a qualifying score that entails completing a set course within a specific time, accumulating a sufficient number of points, and avoiding too many penalties. Mistakes such as knocking a bar off a jump or taking an obstacle out of order can result in nonqualification. AKC has described the sport as the fastest-growing dog sport in the US. Although agility training requires effort and commitment by both handler and dog, the time spent is well worth the effort. Here are the top five reasons to participate in the sport of dog agility.
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Bonding with Your Dog While Having Fun
It is pretty darn fun to run around directing your dog into tunnels and over “A” frames. Not only because it is exciting, but because of the deepened relationship that forms between handler and dog. Making the experiences enjoyable for my canine teammate has always been my goal and this is something the CPE organization stresses.
Learning New Ways to Communicate
At its core, the road to success in dog agility competition consists of a series of hard-won triumphs often requiring years of training, lessons in patience, acceptance of failures, and celebrations of successes when handler and dog learn to read each other, and everything goes as planned. Lee Elgie of Diablo Peak Dog Sports in Martinez, CA teaches a particular style of dog agility training called One Mind Dogs. The goal of this method is to is to give a happy life to dogs by helping people become amazing dog owners through increasing the mutual understanding between the dog and the owner, making a life together more enjoyable for both.
“Teaching dog agility is wonderful as I get to help dog owners learn how to communicate with their dogs effectively and how to see things through their dogs’ perspectives. When students learn new ways to communicate so that their dogs understand, there are wonderful relationships created that extend well beyond the great fun of the agility field!”
Typically, handler and dog navigate anywhere from 12 to 18 obstacles with the dog bearing the brunt of the challenges such as having to traverse 12 vertical weave poles, run through multiple tunnels, and cross a dog walk that stands at a height of 4 ½ feet off the ground. Because the handler usually runs alongside their canine partner, it means everyone gets a workout.
Improves Dog Behavior Outside the Ring
Dog agility training is run off leash so the owner must train the dog to listen without the assistance of physical restraint. Rescue dogs in particular can come with a nervous nature. My own dog’s “stranger danger” was what first inspired me to take my Australian Shepherd/Queensland heeler mix to dog agility training. As my dog’s performance on the equipment improved, her distrust of people waned. Dog agility training offers a variety of experiences that can result in a more confident pet.
Dog agility training requires precision teamwork, so handlers have their own learning curve. The human team member must memorize a course of up to 18 obstacles and guide the dog successfully through the proper sequence. Because dogs respond to body language and are making split decisions as to what dog obstacle course is next, handlers must be aware of what direction their feet are pointing, a cue that can be more important than a verbal command. And the pup must listen to their handler without the incentive of food or toys. Typically, it takes a minimum of one year to train a dog on the equipment required to compete in dog agility. But when executed well, dog agility is a dance of exquisite beauty between a dog and its owner. The end result is nothing short of magical.
Beyond the joy of competing in a sport that requires you to think on your feet, the fundamental gifts of dog agility aren’t about the obstacles, they are learning how to better communicate with your dog and teaching your pet how to understand what you want. It’s important to learn proper handling skills. Teaching the obstacles requires stepwise training to ensure the dog understands how to navigate them properly. A misstep on a dog walk can result in injury, so taking classes that teach both handler and dog how to run the courses is necessary to ensure the dog’s safety.